Every year, the federal government passes the National Defense Authorization Act, allocating the budget for the Department of Defense (DoD). In this year’s bill, the US House of Representatives voted to require the DoD to monitor and reduce potential contamination by per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals commonly used as surfactants in both industrial and consumer goods, and are known for their extreme biopersistence. The widespread use of PFAS over the course of the past fifty years has led to groundwater contamination of varying degrees throughout the United States, including groundwater contamination near military sites where PFAS-containing products are frequently used as fire suppressants. Individuals who are exposed to high levels of products that contain PFAS—such as members of the military who regularly work with PFAS-containing fire suppressants—are reported to have higher levels of PFAS in their blood. Specifically, the bill addresses regulation and reporting of PFAS by the military.
Under the new bill, the DoD must report on (1) PFAS destruction alternatives to incineration, (2) sources of PFAS contamination at military sites, and (3) the progress made by the DoD to replace PFAS in firefighting foam for military applications. Currently, the only fire suppressants that meet military performance standards contain PFAS. The legislation further requires the DoD to test PFAS in drinking water in department run schools. Finally, the DoD must track health problems of service members and veterans, provide blood testing to exposed service members, and notify service members and their families about their exposure to PFAS and the potential health risks.
If passed, the Environmental Protection Agency will publish criteria for water quality and set discharge limits for industrial uses of PFAS. The military would then be required to follow state clean-up regulations for PFAS contamination.
While this legislation has passed the House, it must still pass the Senate and be signed into law by the White House. If these provisions remain in the final bill, the effects will be immediately felt throughout the nation. Notably, the EPA will regulate how much PFAS can enter the environment moving forward, and require the military to remediate and develop alternatives. Recent pronouncements by the EPA regarding what it would view as “acceptable” levels in drinking water—which are near zero—suggests that, if and when this legislation is passed, the government sector, private sector, and the military will be engaged for years to come in extensive and costly remediation efforts nationwide.